WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. – Justin Thomas shot 3-under 67 Thursday in the Greenbrier Classic, putting the Haskins Award winner just four shots off Vijay Singh’s lead. It was a self-described “solid” round that put Thomas, who recently completed his freshman season at Alabama, in contention.
Thomas made four birdies, including a chip-in on the 13th hole, and just a single bogey playing in Thursday’s final threesome.
“It gives me a lot of confidence,” said Thomas, who got in the field for winning this year’s Haskins Award, given to college golf’s top player. “The afternoon is usually harder, so hopefully I can play well tomorrow. I wasn’t very nervous. I felt comfortable out there. That was kind of surprising, and it was a cool feeling.”
This was Thomas’ second PGA Tour start. He played the 2009 Wyndham Championship after winning an AJGA event. He shot a first-round 65, made the 36-hole cut and finished 78th. He is the third-youngest player to make a PGA Tour cut.
He played last week at the Palmer Cup in Northern Ireland. He arrived at his Goshen, Ky., home around 11:30 p.m. Sunday after departing earlier in the day from Northern Ireland. He and his family left at 5 a.m. Monday to make the approximately six-hour drive to White Sulphur Springs. He received the Haskins Award later that day in a dinner that featured Justin Leonard as the keynote speaker.
?Patrick Cantlay, the 2011 Haskins Award winner, also shot 67 Thursday. Cantlay, making his third career pro start, shot 3-under 67, matching his low round as a professional. He missed the cut in his debut at the Travelers Championship and was T-66 at last week’s AT&T National after a final-round 82. Cantlay was bogey-free Thursday until missing the green left at the par-3 18th and failing to get up-and-down.
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STAR ATTRACTION: Webb Simpson stole the show in Thursday’s featured pairing. His 5-under 65 easily bested playing partners Tiger Woods (71) and Steve Stricker (69). Stricker had his wife, Nicki, on the bag because he had given his regular caddie the week off.
“I think most of those people came out to watch Steve and I,” Simpson said jokingly, “but it was fun.”
He made six birdies and just a single bogey, at the par-3 15th. The group teed off at 8:10 a.m. off the 10th tee.
This is Simpson’s second event since his U.S. Open victory. He was T-29 at the Travelers Championship two weeks earlier. He was ninth in last year’s Greenbrier Classic.
“Off the golf course nothing’s changed, I’m still the same guy, but obviously when it comes to golf it’s allowed me to be more confident,” Simpson said of his U.S. Open victory.
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GOOD MOJO: Defending Greenbrier Classic champion Scott Stallings made a 25-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole to shoot 67. It was his third consecutive birdie-2 in competition on the Old White TPC’s par-3 finishing hole. Stallings birdied it to close out regulation play last year, then birdied it again to win on the first hole of a sudden-death playoff.
“That hole changed my life, so it was nice way to end the day,” Stallings said. He birdied his final three holes after a double-bogey on the par-4 13th. He tried to hit his shot off a cart path on that hole, but a piece of gravel deflected the ball into more trouble.
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OLDIE, BUT GOODIE: The overlooked round of the day? That may have come from Tom Watson, the Greenbrier’s pro emeritus. Watson, competing for just the fifth time this season, shot even-par 70, one shot better than Tiger Woods. Watson, 62, played with Keegan Bradley (68) and Jim Furyk (71) in the group in front of Woods.
Watson last made a PGA Tour cut at the 2011 Open Championship, where he tied for 22nd.
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TAKING ADVANTAGE: Billy Horschel, who got in the Greenbrier field earlier this week as an alternate, shot 66 and is three shots off Singh’s lead. Horschel didn’t learn he was in the field until noon Tuesday.
Horschel needed just 26 putts Thursday. He is making his ninth PGA Tour start after finishing 140th on last year’s money list. He’s made six of eight cuts, but earned just $115,728. His best finish this year, a tie for 24th, came two weeks ago at the Travelers Championship.
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PLAYOFF PAY-OFF: Amateur native Jess Ferrell shot 80 in the first round. There’s an interesting story about how the sophomore at Fairmont (W.Va.) State got into the field. Jim Justice gave a sponsor exemption into last year’s Greenbrier Classic to the West Virginia Amateur. Because this year’s Classic was held before the state amateur, an exemption was given to last year’s runner-up.
“I didn’t know that until the last round (of the state amateur),” Ferrell told WBOY.com. “They called me before and told me I was four shots back from second. So I made a run at it and we were tied after the final 18. So we went to a playoff and I won the playoff for the exemption.”